From sticking weed in your vagina to steaming open your cervix, the annals of menstrual relief medicine is long and bleeding complicated.
Photo by Alexey Kuzma via Stocksy
Every 28-ish days or so, roughly half of the world's population bleeds from between their legs: Five or so days of blood, often preceded by some pretty horrific cramps caused by contraction of the muscles in the womb when the uterine lining is shed.
As it's mainly men who have chronicled history thus far, there is scarce information on how women have dealt with period pain through the ages. Indeed, menstruation has been taboo for centuries past (and still kind of are, if the hateful comments directed at this vaginal knitting artist are any indication). Even today, Nepalese women are made to sit in an animal shed for a week until they finish their periods, while Muslim women are not allowed to pray or fast while menstruating.
From Mental Health Wards to Period Leave
Until relatively recently, women who complained of menstrual cramps were reportedly sent to psychiatrists because the cramps were seen as a rejection of one's femininity. In Dear Sisters: Dispatches From The Women's Liberation Movement, feminist historians Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon note of these beliefs at the time: "The adult woman who presents [dysmenorrhea] very often is resentful of the feminine role. Each period reminds her of the unpleasant fact that she is a woman."
Read more: When Your Period Tries to Kill You
These days, it's more likely that women take the day off work due to period pain. The argument for period leave is partly due to a growing recognition that period pain can be almost as bad as a heart attack, with a survey showing that one in ten women are regularly bedridden due to period pain and studies confirming that women perform worse at work when experiencing menstrual pain.
Because I Got High
Marijuana has long been used to help combat period pain. According to the 2002 book Women and Cannabis: Medicine, Science and Sociology, the use of weed as period pain relief stems back to ancient Egypt. A translation of Ebers Papyrus—a record of ancient Egyptian medicine—suggests cannabis "ground into honey and introduced into her vagina" was used to "cool the uterus and eliminate its heat," perhaps as a way to ease cramps. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria was prescribed marijuana by her doctor in order to help combat menstrual discomfort.
These days, marijuana relief is easy to come by—if you live in one of the 28 US states where it is legal, that is. Foria, a vaginal insert containing cannabis oil is currently available in California; the tampon-shaped suppository claims to provide muscle relief without the mind-numbing body high. Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg has recently announced a new range of weed-infused products, including a bath soak and a body balm.
Opium for the Masses
For centuries, opium was the only powerful painkiller available, and often considered the most important drug in a doctor's bag. Used by the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks, and eventually by Benedictine monks in 800 BCE, it has long been hailed as the "joy plant" and "a gift from God."
Other herbs like dong quai—used in ancient Chinese medicine—and fenugreek—one of the oldest medicinal herbs in ancient Egypt—have been used to combat menstrual pain, with fenugreek seed powder found by scientists in one study to reduce the symptoms of dysmenorrhea.
Centuries ago, some naturopaths say, Aztecs and Mayans in Central and South America were fashioning a vaginal (or yoni) steam bath to ward off menstrual pain. Women were instructed to sit on top of bowls filled with boiling water and fragrant herbs such as oregano and basil. The claim is that the combination of steam and essential oils from the herbs penetrate the cervix and uterus to dislodge menstrual fluids, which apparently in turn reduces the pain, bloating, and exhaustion associated with menstruation.
In the 1850s, Canadian First Lady Isabella Macdonald was prescribed styptic balsam—which included sulphuric acid—for her menstrual cramps.
Other allegedly traditional Mayan techniques include Mayan abdominal massage, in which a masseuse apparently uses external massage to guide the uterus into its 'proper position' and drastically reduce period pain. Both practices have been dubiously advocated by a whole bunch of healers of late, though the official scientific evidence to back them up remains, much like a long abandoned Mayan temple, lost in time.
Pins and Pressure Points
Traditional Chinese medicine has involved sticking pins into people since first century BC, though with arguably more efficacy than vagina steams. The peer-reviewed Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that stimulation of an acupuncture point on the leg for five to ten minutes was more effective at alleviating painful periods than ibuprofen. Traditional Chinese medicine researchers believe that the acupuncture point may help to balance the underlying hormones that may be causing the painful periods and PMS in the first place.
Hot Water Bottles and Hot Air
Caster oil has been used therapeutically since the days of ancient Egypt, China, Persia, Africa, Greece, and Rome, but it was a late 18th century mystic called Edgar Cayce (a.k.a. "The Sleeping Prophet) who popularized the use of castor oil packs to detoxify the liver and aid the discomfort associated with menstruation.
Cayce was most famous for attempting to theorize on issues like reincarnation and enjoyed predicting the future while in a trance (i.e. asleep). Most controversially, he espoused a belief in polygenism—the idea that humanity was descended from five human races that were created separately but simultaneously on different parts of the Earth. Needless to say, we couldn't find much scientific evidence to back up Cayce's castor oil pack, either.
Pills and Potions
Aspirin and willow bark, from which it is derived, have been used to combat all kinds of pain since the time of Hippocrates in fifth century BC. But before reliable medicines became readily available, Victorian women experimented with various chemical treatments. In the 1850s, Canadian First Lady Isabella Macdonald was reportedly prescribed styptic balsam—which included sulphuric acid and turpentine—for her menstrual cramps.
In the 19th century, the herbs black haw and black cohosh became very popular in North America. The latter was the active ingredient in one of the century's bestselling medicines: Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. Created by women for women, it was reportedly specifically formulated to target "women problems" and was available as of 1876.
Interestingly, rather than 'specially formulated' medication, this was simply the beginning of targeted marketing. Just like with Feminax and other over the counter medicines, medication for "women's problems" often doesn't contain anything different to other medications, they are simply packaged and marketed differently.
However, there is one pill that has been proven to alleviate period pain: the contraceptive pill, which was first approved by the FDA in 1957 for severe menstrual disorders.
And on the most intense end of the spectrum? Botanist David Stuart notes that an American physician in 1872 actually suggested the surgical removal of the ovaries in order to stop menstrual pain, while ablation removes the lining of the womb and has been available since the 1980s.
Soon, turning off period pain may be as simple as flicking a switch. The Livia—a device that promises to turn off period pain at the touch of a button—has recently met its target on Indiegogo.
Admittedly, there's still a way to go in terms of combatting the occasionally debilitating monthly pain and the stigma that persists around it. But with the conversation about menstruation ever on the bloody increase, at least we're making some strides away from the animal shed and opium derivatives of yesteryear.